NEA Chairman: "The Dumbing Down of Our Culture Is Not Inevitable"

by Staff

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today that reading in the United States is making a resurgence. According to its report Reading on the Rise, adult reading of literature has gone up by 7 percent, the first increase since 1982, when the NEA began researching the subject using a series of surveys given every five years.

"There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading," said NEA chairman Dana Gioia, the New York Times reported. "In a cultural moment when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable."

The rates of reading increased most sharply since the last survey in 2002 among Hispanic Americans and African Americans. The age group that saw the most significant positive change in the past five years was that of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four, reversing the steep decline reported in 2002.

The 2008 survey, which asks about reading of poetry, fiction, and plays, as well as book-length works, done during the past twelve months, featured new questions about online reading. Fifteen percent of those surveyed said they have read literature online, but the majority of that group also reported reading full books, both in print and online.

As for what is being read, fiction (both short stories and novels) fed the increase in reading rates. The readership for poetry, on the other hand, continues a steady decline, especially among women. 

For some, the results of the survey, which polled about eighteen thousand adults, are of questionable significance. "It’s just a blip," Elizabeth Birr Moje, a specialist in literature, language, and culture at the University of Michigan, told the Times. "If you look at trend data, you will always see increases and decreases in people’s literate practices."

Highlights from Reading on the Rise are available on the NEA Web site and the full report is available for download from the NEA's research archives.